Second #62, 01:02, Image © Studio Canal
How fortuitous that the logo for Alexander Korda’s London Film studio—a gorgeous image of Big Ben with heaps of silky deep-gray negative space on the right side of the frame—visualizes the concept of time right from the beginning of The Third Man. Pacing is key in Carol Reed’s film. The first two-thirds are comprised of build-up and anticipation (albeit one of the most rapidly-paced periods of sustained abeyance that I can think of in the movies), while the last third features a seismic release of all of that tension, a convergence of the film’s numerous storylines, attitudes, and visual motifs, as the recklessness and preconceptions of the main character, Holly Martins, are obliterated by some harsh postwar truths.
Actually, the logo for London Film (which Hungarian-producer Korda founded in 1932) was transformed often throughout the decades—as was the studio itself. Their 1937 release Fire Over England, for example, featured this company introduction:
While their 1955 release of Laurence Olivier’s Richard III featured this vibrant logo (which is remarkably similar in composition to the one before The Third Man, albeit Technicolorized):
Obviously Big Ben itself is the through-line here, a recurring denotation of British culture that became especially telling in the immediate postwar years. European film production in the late 1940s was an effort in reviving an industry lying in rubble (sometimes literally); the production houses in France, Germany, England, and nearby countries struggled to compete with popular Hollywood products that had inundated European theaters during the war.
Alexander Korda’s production efforts and the transformation of London Film reflected these upheavals. While Korda’s British successes in the 1930s included Rembrandt (1936, starring Charles Laughton) and The Thief of Bagdad (1940), wartime forced Korda to move his studio’s productions to Hollywood, where he and London Film were based for several years. (Korda had already been associated with United Artists, who had distributed some of his earlier British productions in the States.) In 1943, London Film merged with MGM-British (an offshoot of the American company) in order to distribute films in England—a partnership that itself bespeaks the half-contentious, half-collaborative nature of postwar film production and distribution.
Clocks, it turns out, featured prominently in a number of disparate postwar films. Orson Welles’ own film The Stranger (1946), co-starring Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young, features Welles as Nazi fugitive Franz Kindler, who has claimed a new identity as a small-town schoolteacher in Connecticut. Robinson plays “Mr. Wilson” (a name meant to denote, it seems, an American everyman quality), the United Nations commissary who is hunting Kindler down; at one point, Wilson even claims that Kindler “conceived the theory of genocide.” What’s more, Kindler is often seen tinkering with clocks, and ultimately meets his demise at the hands (literally) of a gigantic clock atop a church belltower. One of the first postwar films to feature footage of concentration camps (footage which Welles described as visualizing “the putrefaction of the soul”), The Stranger seems to suggest that the second World War set in motion a mechanistic process of “civilized” violence whose dehumanizing effects would assail the world with clock-like inevitability. Clocks also made notable appearances in such postwar films noir as John Farrow’s bizarre (and underseen) The Big Clock (1948) and Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal (1948), not to mention Vincente Minelli’s wartime romance The Clock (1945), in which American soldier Robert Walker and the love of his life, Judy Garland (who he’s just met), realize they need to get married right now—lest they never see each other again. These films’ obsession with the inexorable march of time, despite the different forms and tones they adopt, all seem to point towards a newfound realization, bestowed by the war, that mortality is unavoidable, that the future is not guaranteed, and that—most forebodingly—the war mobilized a process of destruction that was nearly automated in its precision.
Finally, the appearance of Big Ben in London Film’s logo brings to mind Gilles Deleuze’s theory of the “time-image” (a concept we’ll likely return to at least a few times). After all, Still #2 above is quite literally a time-image, at least on the indexical level of signification. Deleuze, on the other hand, speaks of the time-image on a symbolic register: he claims that, especially after the war, visuals in cinema began gravitating from a “movement-image” framework—the kind seen in conventional Hollywood cinema, emphasizing action and physical space—to a “time-image” framework—emphasizing thought and memory, and playing out more obliquely in a conceptual or internal space. In Deleuze’s words:
This is what happens when the image becomes time-image…The screen itself is the cerebral membrane where immediate and direct confrontations take place between the past and the future, the inside and the outside, at a distance impossible to determine, independent of any fixed point. The image no longer has space and movement as its primary characteristics but topology and time.
Does this theory hold true for The Third Man? Does this postwar film, on the one hand so entertaining and breathlessly action-packed, conjure time-images imbued with memory, dread, uncertainty, and a basic rupture between what was once known and how things now appear to be (or will likely be in the future)? Again, that clock seems to form the perfect introductory image to The Third Man (inadvertent or not), as the stills we’ll encounter over the following months will force us to ask ourselves whether we’re watching the hands on the surface or the gears chugging away relentlessly inside.
Over the absolute length of one year — two times per week — Still Dots will grab a frame every 62 seconds of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. This project will run until December 2012, when we finish at second 6324. For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.